Big Dogs

Column By Chelsea Murray

   My six year old eyes could hardly see what was going on 50 rows in front of me. I could see and hear some men running around in shorts, bouncing an orange ball up and down off the floor. The Hartford Civic Center was almost silent and a man caught my eye down on the court. The man was jumping up and down and I could hear his bellowing screams all the way from where I was sitting.

   “Daddy, who is that man?” I asked, a confused expression on my face.

   “He’s the coach of UConn,” My Dad said.

   I glanced at the score. I was confused. “Why is he yelling?,” I asked. “They are winning the game.”

   I was blown away by this man’s intensity and it sky rocketed from the court to the people all the way in the back of the stadium. That was my first impression of UConn men’s basketball and their crazy coach, Jim Calhoun.

   Eleven years later, I entered the same arena to watch my next men’s basketball game. The scent of new paint and clean floors wafted into my nostrils the second I walked into the Hartford Civic Center. We pushed through groups of people to make it to the press area to cover the Huskies against the Quinnipiac Bobcats.

   I was excited to see what the team was like up close. I looked down as my press pass dangled around my neck and it made me feel professional and important. We marched our way down the stairs and on the side of the court. We had the closest seats to the action in the whole civic center, but there was one problem, I had to work. I couldn’t be a fan.

   It’s so hard to keep my excitement and emotion suppressed, but I had done it once before for the women’s game a few years before, so I knew I could do it again.

   On this day in late December the University of Connecticut Men’s basketball team was currently ranked #2 in the country. There have been predictions made stating that the men will go to the NCAA Championships this year, and possibly win. The team has made the news countless times already this season because of their stellar play and because of the happenings off court. No one really believed the team had any chance of doing well this season until suspended guard Marcus Williams returned to play full time in January.

   But they were wrong.

   Every guy on the team came together and they have had an incredible (11-0) run to start the season. Over the course of this past decade, the Huskies under the leadership of Calhoun have gained national recognition and respect. The team has become a tough franchise, instead of a small Connecticut school that rivals thought they could mow down easily. The team has produced a handful of top draft picks and NBA stars over the past few years including Emeka Okafor (Charlotte Bobcats), Ben Gordon (Chicago Bulls) and Richard “Rip” Hamilton( Detroit Pistons).

   Growing up I was a Huskies fan because my parents had gone to school there. At times during my life the UConn teams weren’t the cream of the crop and it was sometimes embarrassing to say that I was a fan, but now it’s something to be proud of. The men’s and women’s basketball teams have changed people’s views of the University of Connecticut and are part of the reason why the school has been under renovation to present itself better to the nation.

   The Huskies have become a top dog you don’t want to mess with.

   The men took on the Quinnipiac University Bobcats, Friday December 30. My father and I made our way down to Hartford to watch them play. The Hartford Civic Center is a beautiful space to house thousands of fans and provides a huge stage for the players to display their craft, but it’s not the perfect place for them to play. Hartford gives the chance for anyone to go to a UConn game, but it isn’t fair to the students that want to attend a game. The students have to haul quite a long way to go to get from Storrs to Hartford. If they had more seating at Gampel Pavilion then it would solve the problem.

   The Hartford Civic Center has been vamped up to accommodate UConn’s growing fan base. It was obvious to me that it had been changed around for the Huskies. Big posters of team sponsors and advertisements were plastered all over the walls and on the court. The Huskies have transformed into a money maker since they have garnered so much success over the years.

   The UConn pep band and cheerleaders arrived early to warm up before the game. The cheerleaders came out and started flipping around and doing their stunt group routines around 6:30, a half hour before tip-off. I took my press seat on the side of the court and watched as the two teams took to the court to warm up. Just by watching the two teams move around it was clear that UConn was superior in size and sheer skill they possessed on the floor. The Quinnipiac team looked like a handful of young inexperienced people.

   It’s clear they would beat my high school boys’ team hands down, but it seemed to be an unfair match between them and UConn. I could predict at that moment that it was probably going to be a massacre of the Quinnipiac team. UConn would almost treat this game as a practice while Quinnipiac would be playing as hard as they possibly could to beat the number 2 ranked team in the nation. There was hardly any excitement in the entire stadium for the Bobcats. The teams ran back off the court to go to their respective locker rooms to prepare and mentally psyche themselves up for the game at hand.

   I took a glance around while I waited for the teams to take the court for the final time before the game started. There were many open seats as I looked around. It didn’t seem like this was a very popular game. It was the night before New Years Eve and UConn was playing Quinnipiac, so fans decided to keep their Husky pride at home for the night. There were hardly any students at the game due to winter break. The atmosphere felt flat and dull compared to games I had gone to in the past where the UConn girls played arch rival Duke.

   The two teams stood in respect for one of the best live renditions I have ever heard of the National Anthem. A man named Frank Sweeny, stood center court dressed in a zip up American flag shirt and pants. He was quite bizarre to look at, but when you closed your eyes and listened to his powerful voice, it was truly breath taking.

   The Bobcats were announced and there was a faint sound of people clapping for them, but basically the stadium stayed quiet. The small number of fans that were present were mostly there to support the Huskies. The UConn cheerleaders didn’t seem as pumped as they would have been at a bigger game. Over the years, I have learned a lot about cheerleaders from my friends who are high school cheerleaders. I watched and thought that it must have been a lot easier for these cheerleaders to perform their routines and stunt routines with 7 male cheerleaders as their bases. I watched the faces of the cheerleaders that were hoisted up in their air and for a split second their faces were panic stricken.

    The Huskies were getting pumped to start the game they formed a gauntlet for their starting teammates to pass through as their names were screamed out for the whole stadium to hear. Jonathan, the Husky mascot, shuffled around and pumped his fist. The music blared and the clapping of the UConn fans felt like it was shaking the walls. Every living and breathing person in that stadium – except for the media – were standing on their feet clapping to psyche up the team and get blood flowing for this game. The players jumped and slammed into each other and did crazy spins and acted wild with one another when their names were announced. They put on quite a show before they actually had to play.

   A huge UConn tradition is for the fans to stand and continually clap and cheer until the first UConn basket is made. It was interesting to observe that all the Huskies that weren’t playing were also participating in this tradition of clapping and standing until their teammate placed a shot in. It was funny to see that a tradition with the fans had also become a ritual with the team. They were fans of each other. Marcus Johnson made his first foul shot and it looked like a huge wave as everyone took their seats.

   The players looked larger than life in person as they bounded up and down the floor pounding the rubber ball into the court. Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong are gigantic athletic specimens, and it’s hard to tell that by watching a game on TV.

   It was a shock that Quinnipiac was actually winning within the first few minutes of the game. They were putting up quite a fight and playing well. It was turning into a game instead of a slaughter. UConn was stilled viewed as the superior team because of their size and their record, but Quinnipiac held on most of the first half like bull dogs. Both teams were barely winded after 5 minutes of play. They seemed very agile and in great shape. I knew if I had to run the length of that court once I would be doubled over and gasping for breath.

   I took a good look at all the players and my eye stopped at Jeff Adrien. His mouth was all bandaged up because he had ripped it open in practice when Hilton Armstrong had accidently elbowed him in the mouth. He ended up with 11 stitches from the injury.

   Adrien was a tough player despite the injury. He took great risks without worrying about his mouth. He would jump and push and do everything he was supposed to do, and didn’t protect himself at all. Josh Boone was a very interesting looking character on the court. It was like watching a baseball game and seeing caveman Johnny Damon, with his wild locks and unconventional looks. Boone has corn rows and a look about him that no one else had on the court. He seemed very unique.

    The flat energy returned to the arena and the fans seemed to go silent. Calhoun has been known for his loud and screaming personality and he hardly made a peep the whole game. He seemed laid back and basically gave his assistant coach the reigns for the night. The flat crowd and the lack of energy from Calhoun seemed to add to the trouble UConn was facing on the court. The positive and over confident crowd became angry and quiet when the teams were tied with 8 minutes left in the first half. The fans, and even the players, expected to win. They expected it to be easy and when it wasn’t they were stunned into silence.

    The players seemed lazy and hardly into the game. Some key players like Adrien and Rashad Anderson seemed to try to pump some life back into their teammates because they were disappointed with their efforts. It didn’t matter who they were playing, they were the UConn Huskies and they should play their best all the time.

   I’ll be honest and say that the game had such a flat tone that I lost a little bit of interest. I began to look around at the fans and observe Jonathan the Husky dog. The dog went over to a little baby boy and began spinning him around and obviously making his night way more enjoyable. I would imagine the guy inside that costume was dying of heat and the few times he walked by me, he blew a blast of stinky air my way. His costume smelled of sweat and wet dog. Jonathan plays with little babies, kids and tries to spread some joy with the UConn fans. I kept watching him as he made a gorgeous looking college-aged girl push over so he could sit next to her, as he continued to play hide and seek with the little baby. Seconds later a big guy came and basically kicked Jonathan out of the chair. I stifled a laugh.

   The Huskies must have gotten a strong talking to during the half because they emerged as a different team. They came out as the strong and sturdy UConn Huskies that everyone was expecting to see. The current star of the team with Marcus Williams absence, has been Rudy Gay. He did not play in this game and it was clear they were suffering without him in the first half. The second half the star that emerged was humongous Hilton Armstrong.

   At one point in the second half he came crashing into the press tables to keep a ball in bounds. He hopped up and continued to play as if nothing had happened. The Huskies played harder and stronger and used their sheer size to beat Quinnipiac led by the strong performance of Armstrong. The senior center had a career high 26 points in the game to catapult his team far past the Bobcats for the 111-75 win.

   It seems this season many players have come out of the woodwork to keep the team afloat. The team was predicted to fall apart with Marcus Williams gone, but Rudy Gay took the reigns. Gay along with Rashad Anderson, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone and the other Huskies have fought hard and proven to the nation that they are players and a team that can deal with adversity.

   When their star is not playing, someone always comes to the rescue and in this game it was Armstrong. Calhoun and fellow players called his performance phenomenal and praised his efforts, saying that he continues to improve during every game. “He’s starting to believe in himself and the things he can do,” senior guard Rashad Anderson said after the game. When the players believe in their abilities anything is possible. Gay wanted to come in and save the day “he wanted to rip off his warm up clothes to reveal his superman suit underneath” said Calhoun, but he continued to keep him on the bench to tend to his hurt ankle. Calhoun left it up to the other players to fill in his void and Armstrong and Marcus Johnson did a fine job of doing that.

   Calhoun admitted that “the score was not reflective of the game,” because he felt that Quinnipiac had given a good fight. They had actually challenged the Huskies and he commended them on a job well done. The Bobcats fought and clawed their way through the entire game, but in the end UConn proved to have the stamina and the strength to win.

   During a press conference after the game Calhoun said he was anxious to welcome Marcus Williams back on the court. “Everyone makes mistakes,” Calhoun said. Williams had been away from the team for the beginning of the season due to ‘selfish’ and ‘stupid’ choices that he made. “Kids make mistakes. I make mistakes.

   Everyone in this room makes mistakes,” Calhoun said looking around the room at all the reporters. Everyone makes mistakes.”

    Jim Calhoun, the head coach of UConn for the past 20 seasons was teaching a very powerful lesson of forgiving and moving on. He didn’t seem bitter at all about losing his star point guard for the beginning of the season. He had no reason to be bitter. The remaining members of the men’s basketball team have picked up the slack and played phenomenal in his absence.

   This was the first UConn men’s game I had ever attended as a reporter on the front lines. The pace was fast and the tone was tough. The team seemed very well put together, a well oiled machine. The Huskies have a promising season ahead of them. With the return of Marcus Williams, the careful coaching of Jim Calhoun and his staff, team chemistry, and Connecticut can expect to see monstrous feats from this team. UConn has transformed into a dog pack that other teams don’t want to mess with.